Perhaps there’s a bigger collection of Star Wars memorabilia in a galaxy far, far away, but on this planet the largest one belongs to Steve Sansweet.
A hoarder of all things Star Wars since before the original film even arrived, the former Wall Street Journal bureau chief keeps his enormous catalog of interstellar ephemera in a nonprofit museum called Rancho Obi-Wan. Sansweet is more than just a devotee, however. As the advisor on fan relations for Lucasfilm and author of 16 books about the series, he is an official authority on galactic civil disputes; a Yoda among Yodas.
"It was love at first sight," Sansweet says of the 1977 film that started it all. He may have been one of the first people to feel that way, too, having seen Star Wars in a Fox backlot screening two weeks before its release. A brochure sent out to media people in advance of the screening became Sansweet’s first collectible, after he rescued it from a coworker’s trash bin. Many more would follow obviously.
"Movies had not really been successful with licensing stuff up until Star Wars, but when the first merchandise came out, I started buying it," Sansweet says. "I was already buying the first action figures and toys in early '78, but then Empire Strikes Back came out in '80, and that completely hooked me and sealed the deal."
The Force aficionado didn’t realize how significant a collection he had until the late-80s, when two fortuitous events occurred. First, several major collectors of Star Wars memorabilia had begun to sell off their merchandise—in at least a couple of cases because of a divorce settlement. It was a quiet moment for fans at the time, with no new Star Wars movies on the horizon and no expanded universe publishing program yet in place. Sansweet’s interest was still as strong as ever, though, so he was able to fold major chunks of others’ collections into his own.
The second thing that catapulted the collector onto the world stage of Star Wars was that producer Gary Kurtz began selling a storage facility’s worth of items, including spaceship models and other materials used to make the films. Sansweet refinanced his house to buy it all. "It was just one of those things where you either do it, and it’s at great cost to you, or you kick yourself about it for the rest of your life and pine away at an experience missed," he says. "I wasn’t ready to do that."
Sansweet kept building his world-class collection, and although he worked for the Wall Street Journal by day, he had begun writing books about Star Wars in his spare time. In the years just before the prequels began rolling out, though, he joined the franchise payroll full-time—as Lucasfilm’s Fan Relations ambassador. Responsibilities for this role included making appearances at conventions to field questions and share details about new editions and other developments. Sansweet attended 60 conventions the first year alone. It was a job he was born to do.
In order to contain an increasingly expanding archive, Sansweet’s one-story house in L.A. had become a two-story house. Eventually, it grew to three storys. The initial storage locker he rented to hold the runoff from his house turned into five storage lockers. Finally, the collector bought a former chicken ranch in Northern California and established the Rancho Obi-Wan—a mecca for fans around the world to come and see all the toys, action figures, models, scripts, and fan art they can handle. The collection still continues to grow, however—especially with an announced new trilogy on the way.
"I’m being more selective these days, but I still call myself a completest," Sansweet says. "I always say, 'Buy what you love.' Problem is I love it all."
Have a look at some of the coolest stuff from Rancho Obi-Wan in the slide show above.
Slide images courtesy of Anne Neumann